OEM Report: Automotive
Wednesday | 25 March, 2009 | 3:08 am

Expanding the limits

By Mike Scott

March 2009- In today’s world of improved vehicle performance and better maintenance techniques, mileage limits should rarely--if ever--be imposed on fleet vehicles.

As recently as five years ago, the preference of most private and public fleet managers was to keep mileage levels for fleet vehicles relatively low. About 75,000 was a typical target, depending on the type of vehicle. Heavy-equipment vehicles might be driven longer because of the large investment.

Of course, at certain mileage levels, all vehicles can begin to have significant service issues. It used to be that fleet managers would look for ways to dispose of vehicles with more than 100,000 miles.

But the 100,000-mile level is no longer frowned upon. Most fleet vehicles are being driven longer and harder than ever, which merits taking steps to improve their chances of longevity.

Maximizing miles
Put heavier oil in the vehicle once it reaches more than 100,000 miles. For sedans or general-purpose vehicles, 1540 and other synthetic motor oils are an investment worth making. The switch is one of a few basic changes to a vehicle’s service routine that can help it maintain its productivity and perhaps add more than 200,000 miles for the average fleet vehicle.

And don’t overlook the impact on other driving practices, such as reducing idling and maintaining driving speeds at or below 55 miles per hour when not on the highway. These are strategies that Polk County, Fla., has put into effect for its fleet. In fact, drivers are required to implement these practices. As a result, maintenance costs and fuel costs are expected to fall.

And that means an extra 5,000 miles to 15,000 miles for the average vehicle in the Polk County fleet. That goes for heavy-equipment machines such as dump trucks, bulldozers, delivery trucks and sedans. How is Polk County ensuring such strategies are followed? It’s giving incentives to employees who drive the same fleet vehicles on a daily basis. Some employees could earn as much as $400 extra per year by sharing in the cost savings the county fleet can measure on fuel alone with a 50-50 split.

In reality, such a strategy makes specific mileage targets unrealistic. Every vehicle is different. The 100,000-mile target might not be high enough for sedans or trucks responsible for point-to-point deliveries or driving responsibilities. Vehicles that spend an inordinate amount of time on the highway might have high miles but because of a comparative lack of stop-and-go driving, they’ll have a relatively clean maintenance record.

To help vehicles maintain their performance as long as possible, practice micro and macro rotation when possible. This includes driving units with fewer miles during times when high-mileage duties are necessary. The strategy helps balance the fleet in terms of vehicle turnover needs.

The green miles
Then there’s the impact of environmentally friendly vehicle policies. A group of public and private fleet managers in the state of Washington is developing the Evergreen Fleet Initiative, which includes the establishment of 18 standards and the encouragement of other strategies designed to promote green policies.

Leaders of this initiative are convinced that adhering to these standards could also reduce required maintenance, lengthening the life span of fleet vehicles. These leaders expect some of the gasoline-powered vehicles to outlive their predecessors by 10 percent to 30 percent because of policies such as enforced speed limits. But if they do end up selling a fleet vehicle while it’s still effective, a higher residual value is likely to follow.

Paul Lauria, president of Mercury Associates, a fleet consulting firm in Gaithersburg, Md., said that based on his 20 years of experience in the field, it used to be rare for most fleets to keep sedans past the 100,000-mile mark. Nowadays, most fleet managers focus more on a vehicle’s age rather than a hard-and-fast mileage mark.

Lauria acknowledges the perception that the older the fleet vehicles get, the more frequent and more costly servicing them becomes. But given that oil changes, radiator flushes and other common maintenance chores don’t have to be completed as frequently as in the past, fleet managers around the country have realized the same is true for more extensive maintenance projects.

Managing fleet vehicles at a broad level might be a macro responsibility, but fleet managers are managing vehicles on an individual basis with little or no adherence to mileage limits.

What was impossible should now be expected. Six digits for a fleet vehicle is not a death sentence. Nor should it be a bill for expensive maintenance projects. Adhere to proven best-practice techniques, and there’s no telling where a vehicle will max out. The final number could be surprising. MM

Mike Scott is a Detroit-based freelance writer who has contributed to more than 100 local and national magazines, Web sites and newspapers.

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